Mass. police among least likely to shoot

Culture, community connections put state at bottom in officer shootings

POLICE IN MASSACHUSETTS rarely shoot anyone. According to the latest Washington Post analysis, Massachusetts is virtually tied for the lowest rate of officer-involved shootings in the US – six per million in population. (Rhode Island has the fewest at four per million; New York also experiences officer-involved shoots at the annual rate of six shootings per million.)

Massachusetts officers face the same complicated encounters faced by personnel in other states. They face the same risks, real and potential. But the encounters just don’t end in the same rate of police shooting of civilians as they do in many other states. When one contemplates how many Bay Staters with access to a gun are deranged right now on alcohol and drugs, six in a million is a remarkable rate. As we advocate for police reform, that fact should not be lost.

What is different about use of deadly force in Massachusetts? Decades of observation and study lead me to conclude that the reasons for fewer police shootings are cultural. Even with a history of many genuine controversies and a few foofaraws, most Massachusetts police departments have maintained a connection to the community. In general, officers maintain an identification with the people in the communities they serve. They see themselves for the most part as stakeholders, rather than outsiders. The downside to this phenomenon is that a history of residential segregation in Massachusetts means most departments continue to be disproportionately white. We can have diverse police departments that sustain a stake in the health and safety of the community.

Strong identification with the community does not exist everywhere. Anecdotally, I remember a visit to Boston in the 1990s from a well-regarded police supervisor from California. He asked, quite casually, what the Boston Police “kill ratio” was. I suspected we did not use this macabre metric: the rate at which police kill people at whom they shoot. I did an informal poll of top department leaders. Such a thing was unknown to all. History and culture again explain the difference between how officers on opposite coasts conceive of using deadly force.

California embraced a style of policing – stressing clinical detachment and technical excellence — that actually came to be known as “California Professionalism.” Technical excellence meant firing when the rules say fire. A one-over-one “kill ratio” was the clinical standard. The champions of this style of policing used popular entertainment like television to promote it. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the TV shows “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” were both created by Jack Webb. Webb was an actor, producer, and right-wing ideologue who promoted a particularly authoritarian version of California Professionalism. The ideology was adopted widely in the US. The police in the Northeast generally did not embrace it.

Boston police clung to walking beats into the latter 1960s despite pressure from professional associations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police to detach, get into cars, and police by random, motorized patrol. Officers knew they were more effective when they were seen as part of the neighborhood mosaic.

The relationships certainly have been fraught, especially with the black community and other communities of color. The “relationship” with the LGBTQ community once consisted entirely of repression. Thus, while the connective apparatus between community and police has sustained many dents, scratches, and a few ruptures that required repair in the past 50 years, it has not given way.

The stories that local officers tell are clues to a second cultural basis for fewer shootings. Listen to almost any veteran officer tell their story. You will hear about the time they used some sixth sense – informed by compassion and wiliness – to bring a confrontation to the preferred outcome: everyone lives, arrests are made. These stories are told in the guardrooms and they have informed the legacy passed down the generations. Police in this region pride themselves on relying on their wits, rather than force multipliers, to get the compliance they need in hairy encounters.

You can read this, too, in some great memoirs and nonfiction by and about police in Massachusetts and the Northeast. In Tracy Kidder’s book Home Town, you can read about an officer in Northampton who feels shaken but good about the showdown with an armed teenager that he ended with no injures to anyone. In Bill Bratton’s autobiographical Turnaround, he shares an anecdote about when, as a Boston sergeant, he confronted a hostage taker while unarmed. He uses his wit to gain release of the hostage from the armed man. In Blue Blood, former New York City patrol officer Edward Conlon offers a lode of stories in which he used professional discretion to give people the room to do what he wanted them to do.

Police departments everywhere have work to do to catch up with the new learning and expanding consciousness about systemic racism. We have evidence that says bias results in disparate treatment when the subject is a person of color. Local departments cannot look at the killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many others and not examine their own decision-making.

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The more we learn, the more police in Massachusetts must be open to the new questions and to embrace learning. If leaders can avoid defensiveness in the face of new evidence, the Commonwealth’s police culture can provide fertile ground for improvement.

The overwhelming majority of officers in the Commonwealth are right to object to being lumped in with departments that are much quicker to pull the trigger. That is less a reason to step out of the reform movement and more a promising foundation on which to build new, non-racialized systems and practices.

Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.